Tom Meade marched to the sound of a different drimmer and creatively built the sports car bodies of his dreams.
One evening 20 years ago, I was leafing through some old Ferrari articles when I came across some of the most sensual automotive shapes I'd ever seen. The designs seemed to embody the ultimate in exoticism, extroverted, even downright luscious. They were not created by Giugiaro, Pininfarina or Gandini but instead by an American living in Modena - at that time, the mecca of exotic car design. His name was Tom Meade.
Born in January of 1939, Meade spent his youth in Australia and Hawaii before he embarked on a four-year stint in the Navy as an aviation electronics engineer. Sailing with him was an ever-growing passion for automotive exotica and a desire to one day own and drive a car of his dreams.
Once his Navy days were behind him, Meade's enthusiasm for exotic cars continued to grow, boosted by occasional sightings such as a Testa Rossa he came across one day in Costa Mesa, a small town in Southern California.
Meade recalls, "I used to go look at it for hours. I thought it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. It was a 500TRC. The owner told me that he had bought it out of an old warehouse in Rome that was full of these things and that they did not know what to do with them."
Within days, the 21-year-old Meade gathered savings and courage, stuck his thumb up as high as his hopes and began a journey from Los Angeles to Maranello - an adventure that could fill a book. He traveled on a freighter from New Orleans to Norway, then hitchhiked, rode a used motorcycle through England, traveled down to Spain and on to Genova by sailboat.
Soon our young Americano found himself in Rome, where he lucked into some acting roles. He made some money, generally had the time of his life and dissappointedly confirmed that the Roman exotic car warehouses were a myth. Automotive-wise, he found nothing exciting in the capital, so he hopped on his bike and traveled to the center of the exotic car universe, Modena. It was the fall of 1960.
"What I really wanted was a racing car because I did not have much interest in street cars. Of course in those days, they were throwing old racing cars away since nobody had the slightest interest in them after they were no longer competitive. Everybody thought I was totally crazy because I wanted one."
As Meade rumbled into the town that would wind up being so important in his life, a passerby explained that it was too late in the day to visit Ferrari, located 15 kilometers away. However, the man suggested a visit to nearby Maserati - a fateful crossroads perhaps.
Maserati's gateman, initially puzzled by the wild and bedraggled-looking motorcyclist, soon heard the magic word: Americano. Even 15 years after hostilities' end, harsh times in Italy made any foreigner a millionaire in an Italian's mind, particularly when he came from the land of Hollywood.
Hence appointed temporary VIP, Meade was guided around the factory by Aurelio Bertocchi (future president and son of chief Maserati test driver, Guerrino), who promptly extolled the virtues of their new 3500GT which the visitor hardly noticed, being more interested in race cars. Eventually, he was escorted to the racing department, located in a separate building.
"As we were walking around back there, I noticed the shape of a car under a big tarpaulin. So I asked Bertocchi what it was, could we have a look at it? He said, 'Oh no, you don't want to see that. It's just an old race car...and not for sale.' Under the tarp the shape looked great, it certainly looked like a race car. When I lifted the tarp, I revealed what was basically a bare shell - but I loved its shape."
It turned out to be a 350S; serial number 3503, the very one which had temporarily hosted a V12 for Hans Hermann at the '57 Mille Miglia.
Apparently, Jean Behra was the Maserati's last driver, having raced it at Monza before dropping out when the car suffered a broken piston. He could never have imagined that it would be owned some day by a young Californian intent on "streetifying" it. But old race cars had little value in those years, which is why Meade was able to purchase it for $420 and fell asleep with a big grin that night, his sleeping bag on a garage floor next to his Maserati.
Meade had found his dream macchina at last, his mission accomplished. "I slept there because I was afraid to leave the car alone: I fell in love with it right away!" Having acquired it for a pittance after much pleading to convince them to allow him to buy it, he had had it trucked away that night, lest they change their minds.
The following morning as Meade awoke he was faced with another mission: the daunting task of completing his Maserati shell and bringing it to life. His finances certainly wouldn't allow him to summon a workshop to shoehorn a racing engine - or even a 3500GT engine - into it and finish it.
Thankfully he found himself in the most talent-intensive, craftsman-filled township on the face of the automotive earth and was soon pointed towards Carrozzeria Fantuzzi, where he was helped to organize his project and begin it. Furthermore, since it was also a hospitable town and the enthusiastic young foreigner drew sympathy, Medardo Fantuzzi kindly offered him a place to sleep in the workshop, near the heater.
"So that is where I first lived in Italy and it was Fantuzzi who really taught me how to 'idea shape' the cars. He is the one who made the body on these cars, so my very beginnings were with Fantuzzi. He is the one who gave me my inspiration in how the cars were shaped and my schooling in how the bodies were made." With much advice from numerous local craftsmen, little by little he learned how to put together his car, having now moved to a farmer's barn.
He soon set his sights on a treasure trove at the Maserati factory. "They used to have this big storage room full of old racing parts; it was a mountain, and nobody knew where anything was. Most of those older guys who had worked there at the time had only a vague idea of where certain parts were. I knew everything there. Consequently, Bertocchi used to have me supply all the spare parts to all the racing teams and gave me parts for free for my car if I would help the teams with the spares for their Birdcages, Type 61s they used to race, etc. I had the most fantastic relationship with them; I was really like their pet, the factory pet. They liked the way I did things, I was very adventurous."
At the Maserati factory, he became acquainted with Lloyd "Lucky" Casner, with whom he later developed a strong friendship. "When I first met him he had destroyed one of his Duntov racing Corvettes, so I bought most of his equipment for another 400 bucks (the price of the Maserati shell), including parts, tools, and trailers. He gave me the whole shebang, and, most importantly, an engine." So with a little help from his friends, the car neared completion.
"Everybody said you can't drive a race car on the street, that's crazy! I said, 'How can I have a car like this if I can't drive it?' So I fixed this whole car up for street driving."
A removable fastback hardtop was built at Fantuzzi (in trade for Tom's bike) and mated to a different windshield in place of the very low screen. Mufflers and a speedometer were fitted, and the upholstery was made more plush.
The time had finally come to begin enjoy driving it. Meade mainly recalls the enormous popularity and attention the car commanded, particularly around nightclubs where he often was asked to park it by the entrance. In fact, women would enthusiastically demand rides! "Everywhere I went I was absolutely amazed. There would always be crowds of people around it! I had just built this car out of passion and had absolutely no idea that people were so crazy about unusual cars!"
Having spent everything he had on the project, there was nothing else for him to do except return to the states, shipping the 350S along to California. Too soon after that, alas, it was heartbreakingly wrecked in California by a friend. Meade simply sold off the remains.
Italia - The Return
After almost a year in San Francisco working with his mother, Meade decided that the best thing to do was to go back to Italy. "I had found out that what I really wanted to do in life was to go back, build these bodies for these cars, buy these race cars, prepare them for the street and send them all over the world."
He rented an apartment above the racetrack, the Autodromo. "Below it were four garages in a row which I started filling up with old race cars, bits and pieces, etc."
While others joined Ferrari or Lamborghini, Tom was his own man. Though he could have worked for one of the factories, he had his ideas, his projects, and he did not want to become merely a number. "How could I have [done all this] working for a factory?"
Hammers, Curves And Alloy
After street-preparing a couple of Maseratis (a 200S and another 350S), Tom was able to start on his idea; specifically his first self-designed body. Even though finances were still tight, he did this by employing a Fantuzzi employee friend part time and putting what he had learned while rebuilding the Maserati to good use. As he recalls it: "The reason for my presence in Italy is that I never saw a car that I believed was absolutely perfect. That 500TRC I first saw in California was, I thought, a fantastic car, but I always saw areas that I felt I could improve on and when I bought my first Maserati I did modify it a little bit here and there, as best I could with my limited amounts of money. I learned to do everything with my own hands."
As nobody ever built the complete car, my specialty became deciding the body shape and then building the mannequino, which is the skeletal body shape on which the panels are formed. This I did by eye, constantly verifying the shape. Cars were built with many different people, however, you always have got to have the master. Fantuzzi when he did Ferraris was the master. When Scaglietti did a Ferrari he was the master, so I became the master of my own shop, even though I was really an apprentice."
This first Meade body was based on a Ferrari 250GT. Already the very aggressive, long, low-spouted design pattern was evident, showing some very-definite Meade ideas: The side vents tapered like gills, the entire glasshouse seemed to tilt backwards, making the nose more prominent. Another aggressive design feature which was to appear in all his creations was already evident, namely a long nose overhang and a short overhang at the back.
Tom then went on a trip to Holland in his creation to rebody a Birdcage, and though he did not find a buyer, he got plenty of attention, trading rides in it for lunches.
"I had spent my last penny on my car so that's how I lived up there. This was an adventure, nobody cared about making money beyond food and rent. It was cars, cars, cars, and the hell with everything else."
Salvation came in the name of Leon Barbier, at garage Francorchamps in Brussels, the well known and long established Ferrari importer owned by Jacques Swaters. Barbier immediately whipped out a check for a rear-engined Birdcage. Tom had just such a chassis in the garage below his apartment, one he had salvaged from the factory.
This bit of luck turned the Americano's situation around, providing some much - needed rent money and impetus into his main creative era. "That's what put me on my way."
This was most opportune, because his first creation (which he had barely driven, like the 350S) was ruined in the catastrophic flood of Florence where he had left it for a show. Tom's ample enthusiasm quickly put that behind him, for the next project beckoned.
From the vantage of his apartment across from the Autodromo, Tom was a privileged witness to a fertile time in a fertile place, seeing not only prototypes of production Ferraris and Maseratis but even race cars with Prova (test) plates or no license plates around the city, and at top speed on the autostradas and country lanes. Race cars were driven on the street from the factory into the Autodromo. As his apartment window looked right down on the track, he was a constant witness.
Tom realized that for automotive design and production, he was probably in the best place at one of the best times in automotive history. "It just seems that the people from the Po Valley, of which the heart is Modena, are very very clever, very naturally gifted with their hands. The area is also very rich agriculturally and I think that it has always had the right amount of money being spread around. When the residents there decided that they wanted to do other things besides repairing field plows and so on, they were able to utilize their creativity to do other things just like Lamborghini did. Ferruccio used to make tractors out of spare parts from the American army supply. This mentality, this idea, this creativity I think came from that."
And Meade was part of these creative times as well. "People from the States or Germany or Sweden started calling or coming from all over the world, asking me if I could find them a race car, but before selling it I would take it down to the racetrack and test it. Whenever I built my cars I took them over to the Autodromo, to the racetrack just like the factories; they didn't charge you; you could drive right in. David Piper and I used to rent a workshop together where he used to work on his cars between the continental races. Quite often the late Mike Parkes would bring his own 275 GTB in and work on it, and his ladyfriend Brenda Vernor (Enzo Ferrari's future secretary) would be there too."
Piper recalls those days: "Tom was a good chum of mine; I rather liked him. Those were the days when everyone came to Modena to do their thing, there were lots of Americans visiting. Tom's Thomassimas were great fun to look at, with outrageous designs. I don't know whether he was interested or financially able to make them completely streetworthy."
Radical Design Modifications
Tom then tried his hand at modifications of existing sports cars. According to author Richard Merritt, a regular Modena visitor in those days, Tom gave nose jobs with side vents to the rather stodgy PF2 cabriolets and 2+2 Ferraris. Such modifications came at a time when concours and originality were of no concern. They were totally acceptable to all but the most conservative Ferraristi.
Merritt recalls Meade as the resident flamboyant character of the Modenese automotive community, some of whom did not appreciate the media attention and perceived money he began attracting, as they felt it was unwarranted especially for modifications done by an outsider. Tom admitted that there was some of that, but it wasn't going to stop him from doing what he was about, what he believed in: his designs. In fact, from that point on it always became very fashionable for linear thinking unromantic types - not understanding of Tom's passion and devotion to design - to make up stories about his cars. Meade feels it was all motivated by jealousy in order to discredit him and destroy his dream.
Partly inspired by his favorite '50s and '60s designs (the 315S, the 500 Testarossa, the GTO 64), Tom began his next creation. He recalls the design mindset of the time and his vision: "In those days it was a generally rounded shape. Round lines will last forever because with square lines you start at one point and finish at one point, and when you are at the beginning or the end of something it always has a beginning and an end. In a circle, it's always never-ending and that leads to immortality in shape, which is why in my opinion, round lines will always be the shape of the past, of the future and the greatest form of beauty."
Thomassima (!) simply signifies Tom's expression of what a car should be, and the three Thomassimas were to be the most accomplished Meade creations.
"The Thomassima 1 was very exciting for those days. It was an everyday street car. It had a Chevrolet V8, removable gullwing doors and it turned into a targa. I was the one who invented the removable gullwing targa top; the whole top and gullwing doors came off and you just put them in the trunk. No one had ever thought about trying it."
Tom further developed with his next creation: the Thomassima 2, based on a Cooper monoposto chassis. "This was the mid-engined one, but don't call it a P4. The T2 originated when I asked my client what lines he preferred and he replied that he loved the look of the Ferrari P4, and I said, 'I will build you a car more beautiful than the P4.' It wasn't really an inspiration from the P4; it was my idea of what a P4 should have looked like."
All this creativity did not go unnoticed, reaping machining, fabricating assignments and much more.
"Carroll Shelby asked me to build the new Cobra in '68, but shortly after, decided not to go ahead with it. One night when we were together at the Bar of the Fini hotel I asked him what he was going to do about the new Cobra and he answered 'I am not going to do anything. I can't comply with all these new laws for safety, emissions, etc.'
"I said, 'Gosh, I think there is a fantastic market for the cars,' and he said, 'Yeah, but the time for those cars is over.' I was supposed to design and build the new Cobra and we had a verbal agreement. When he went back to California he was supposed to send back his engineers within the next few weeks to give me a hand putting the project together."
"After a week and a half I received a telegram from him saying, 'Tom: I am sorry we can't go ahead with the project because I have just sold out to Ford, lock, stock, and barrel: my name, the whole Cobra project. We can't do it.' That was the end of that. Otherwise I would have been the one who would have built the new Cobra for Shelby."
While Shelby's health made him understandably unavailable to comment on what might have been, designer Peter Brock was unaware of that episode but did remember Meade as "totally involved and submerged into the Modena scene, living at Fantuzzi," continuing, "There was great flair in some of his designs."
That elusive Cobra assignment or another such contract would have seriously established Meade and given him a chance to retain craftsmen full-time. A point of increasing importance as the years went by: These craftsmen mainly worked for the establishment, some of whom were annoyed at the publicity Tom received for his designs and also by the fact that certain foreign visitors preferred dealing with Meade because of his enthusiasm and his ability to speak English.
Tom was intimately involved in the production of the Nembo spyders (there were two slightly different spyders and one berlinetta made) and sold them to the States, though neither was a car Tom claims to have designed. They are, however, very similar in general lines to the stillborn T3 spyder. The Nembos are widely considered the most beautiful special-bodied Ferraris ever made.
Then came the Thomassima 3. It is the most famous Meade creation and garnered much media attention, including the cover of the December 1970 issue of Road & Track, the Walter Cronkite talk show, "60 Minutes," and appearances on RAI (Italian TV). As he sees it: "The finish work on this car was probably better than every Ferrari that had ever been made at the time - everything on that car was fitted by hand. If you look at the trunk or the doors there was a fit of two millimeters all the way around, and even after this car was driven the finish was still 100 percent. It was done on a combination of (unshortened) 250GT chassis, engine and parts. I fitted a five-speed gearbox and special brakes with ventilated discs."
He showed the car at the Modena auto show and the Torino auto show where it attracted the public like flies, twice gained first place and brought him plentiful lavish press reports. He then shipped it to Newport Beach, showing it in various events where it gained much attention. An awestruck Newport Beach nightclub owner nearly ordered a similar Thomassima, though Tom mentioned he did not feel prepared for the comprehensive task of duplicating one of his cars.
"We just thought we were building these cars and having fun with them. It was just the feeling that you had in those days of what you felt people would be excited to see. Today I wouldn't even dream of building a car with spaghetti pipes. When I built the car with those sidepipes, many thought it was fantastic, it created excitement. Not because it was something so beautiful as a Ferrari but because it was something new and different. Years later people asked me why I put the pipes on the car and I said that I put them on for myself, for the joy of creating!
"In those days you could do anything you wanted. . .you thought the cars would soon fade into oblivion. I never dreamed that they would still be around, that they would become works of art in the future, that the cars would reach this magnitude of collectibility and value - with people showing off how many cars they have. There were no EPA rules or investor types, no show-offs-it was just pure passion."
One advantage throughout that era was the low price of the obsolete racers. "Nobody wanted to buy them! I had a GTO 64 and a 330P1 that were my personal cars, and I used to drive them around the streets in Modena. I used to drive a 275LM which I then sold to someone in Florida."
Beyond the cars Tom claims a number of very innovative ideas:
"I invented the removable fastback hardtop, I invented the removable gullwing targa top and spaghetti side pipes; nobody else had that then."
Another idea staked by Tom was the first entirely practical upward opening door, though it was not incorporated into an existing Thomassima. It is a concept into which he evidently put a great deal of thought. At the height of it all Meade also made and designed a wheel, with sponsorship from Pirelli: "They actually fabricated special tires for me and I fabricated some mock-up wheels in plaster of Paris with cardboard centers." Their aggressive design was signature Meade, very animalistic.
The Stillborn Thomassima 4
"I started to build a version of the Thomassima 3 with a convertible top and that is how it would have looked, but the car was never completed.
"Another project was to be a mid-engined car. This (the T3) would be considered the female car; it was very sexy, like a woman's shape. This is what we called the Femina, and I wanted to build the Maschio, that would have been its name. It would have been inspired from the T3 shape as a mid-engine with very wide tires and a much more exaggerated shape. It was going to be built for the street with a Daytona engine and ZF box. I would have made a tubular chassis."
At this point, Tom may have been somewhat ostracized by part of the establishment's pressure on the craftsmen moonlighting for him to choose where they wanted to earn their keep.
Because of this or the fuel crisis, the late '70s and '80s were very difficult. "At that time everything changed. I had moved out of Modena and up to Milano, was visiting in Newport Beach while bringing cars over and started doing a lot of Italian television work as an actor." Thanks to his movie contacts, his cars appeared as props in some movies, providing welcome additional income.
The Thomassima 3 would be the last of his creations. "I had started to do the convertible model and then in the mid-'70s everything sort of came to a standstill and I had to stop making all these things.
"That is what stopped everything dead in its tracks. Money ran out. Although I always dealt in cars it even became difficult to sell cars, because people weren't as crazy about Ferraris as they had been."
So to make ends meet, Tom fabricated parts and opened a restoration shop in Milan, restoring cars, manufacturing components, and making castings for small racing shops all over northern Italy. This was a sharp contrast from the days when he was retaining a significant number of Modena craftsmen part-time to put together his own cars.
During the late '80s collector car boom, a client wanted Tom to rebody a series of cars. "This was during the heyday when collector cars became very valuable. A gentleman from Texas wanted me to build a supercar on a Ferrari Testarossa chassis. He wanted to buy ten, take the bodies off and create supercars out of them with my new body design. However, he wanted people to know that it was still a Ferrari underneath so he asked me to do some design projections." While the Texan's bankruptcy nipped the project in the bud, it provided the hypothetical look of a modern Thomassima.
Though Meade would not let drawings of the project be published, he allowed an attempt to describe them. The Meade "evil and sensuous" style from earlier creations is distinctly recognizable in shapes that are molded in the spiny or ridged ways of today but still retaining roundness, staying away from excessively sharp edges and straight lines. Recognizable was an exciting take on the mean look of the old Thomassima 3 and the car that was ruined in the flood. Other touches such as six integrated headlights fit in very well.
The assembly or rather disassembly method was well thought out. "I usually use aluminum. I have never made anything but aluminum cars. One of my ideas was not to attach the body firmly to the chassis any more. Another was to make removable body sections that snapped on and off the central structure of the car so that if anybody had an accident or damage, they could snap the sections off and order prefabricated pre-painted sections. They would then be able to I snap them back on the car, which would allow them to be repaired anywhere in the world. This would also include sections of the upper structure, which is more or less the inner structure that holds the body to the chassis proper."
Today Tom won't be drawn into naming his favorite creation. "I like all of them for different reasons. But you know that the cars you designed years ago are no longer your taste because you go through an evolutionary process."
The '80s brought a change in attitudes that Meade does not relish. "During the later years everybody became nasty; they only cared about the money the cars brought. The cars lost what we called their fascina, their fascination, and they became money symbols to show off or wheel and deal with without really knowing, feeling what a beautiful car really means."
Today, Tom has a workshop full of parts and cars in Italy. Prize jewels of that warehouse are the Thomassima 1 and 3.
"The Thomassima 1 that I had sold to a guy in Switzerland was in an accident, badly fixed up and then stored for years and years. Eventually I bought it back damaged and have not as of yet had a chance to redo it. I also have the T3. I kept it all these years and used it mostly for auto shows. There were at least 20 or 30 people that have wanted to buy that car since I built it, but I loved it and I wanted to keep it to show my expertise."
Today Meade laments the passing of the old craftsmen and talks of getting restarted in Italy. "I feel that in a year or two cars will go back to where they were in the heyday of the late '80s and early '90s. I think it is time to get back on the ground floor and slowly get back into this. "
This is certainly a tantalizing endeavor, but the never-ending regulations would be a substantial hurdle: Consider that Meade's first - and very special - Maser got through customs 35 years ago. The Maserati factory itself - at least until its recent takeover by Ferrari - had given up on trying to meet US government regulations.
Whatever the future may bring us in the way of Thomassimas, the ones Meade built in the '60s certainly stand in posterity as the quintessential definition of the macchina exotica. Grazie Thomassimo!